Buckets of Data

December 4, 1998

Surrey books, Chatelaine, Dec. 1998, pp. 46-52

Filed under: Surrey — bucketsdata @ 5:56 pm

Chatelaine
December, 1998
SECTION: v.71(12) D’98 pg 46-52; ISSN: 0009-1995

CBCA-ACC-NO: 4352515

LENGTH: 4996 words

HEADLINE: War over words: it’s a battle over three slim storybooks. But it has sparked a bitter values clash in Surrey, BC

BYLINE: Brook, Paula

BODY:
A scuffle erupted as the students in James Chamberlain’s Grade 1 class at
Latimer Road Elementary School in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey lined up
at the door in preparation for their daily march down the hall to the gym.
A girl was teasing two boys, goading them to kiss one another. One of the
boys grew agitated and shouted loudly enough for everyone in line to hear
that there was no way he’d ever do that, only gays do that!

It was what modern educators like to describe as a ”teachable moment,”
and Chamberlain seized it. Taking his three students aside, he asked them,
”Do you know what gay means?” One replied, ”That’s when two boys kiss
each other and it’s gross.” Chamberlain paused and explained: ”It could
also mean when two men or women love each other and raise a family
together. In our classroom we don’t know which families might have two
moms or two dads and what you said could be hurtful to someone. In our
classroom, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk like that because it’s
not right for us to make fun of people because they have a different skin
colour or come from different kinds of families.”

That was two years ago, before Chamberlain’s students, their parents, his
colleagues at Latimer, his superiors in School District No. 36 (Surrey)
and at the education ministry in Victoria, along with virtually everyone
else in Canada who follows education news, knew he was gay. Which is not
to say the 35-year-old teacher responded to that little scuffle because of
his own sexual orientation. Nor was that the reason he spearheaded a
drive, later the same year, to have three storybooks about same-sex
families approved for classroom use–a highly charged campaign that
propelled the teacher out of the closet and his school board into the
Supreme Court of British Columbia. Chamberlain was just trying to do his
job, he says, and part of it is to talk to his students about family
diversity.

To understand what is happening in Surrey–and more generally, what is
being taught in schools these days–it is necessary to do some serious
decoding. Family diversity, for example, falls under the B.C. Ministry of
Education’s Career and Personal Planning (CAPP) curriculum, mandated for
all public school students from kindergarten through Grade 12. At the
primary level there is a family life education section whose prescribed
learning outcomes include: ”Identify a variety of models for family
organization.” This is what James Chamberlain was talking to his students
about. And this is what he wanted to read to them about, believing that
stories are picture windows through which children view the world.

”You can’t draw stick people on the board and say this is one kind of
family. It’s not the way kids think at that age level. Five- and
6-year-olds are very egocentric–they view the world through their own
little lens, and it’s hard for them to understand other points of view and
the concept of bias.”

In the old days, few teachers would even attempt a lesson on bias. It
wasn’t in the textbook, so it wasn’t taught. In the old days, parents
could browse through the texts and get a pretty good idea of what was in
the curriculum–in other words, what their children had to regurgitate by
year-end if they wished to pass the grade. These days, the word ”text”
(even ”grade”) has a quaint sound. ”Curriculum” has largely been
replaced by the Integrated Resource Package (IRP). Other provinces may use
other codes, but the IRP concept is standard: a flexible teaching model in
which a raft of learning outcomes are achieved through discretionary use
of workbooks, novels, films, music, art, computer games, live
presentations, field studies and so on. This is known as resource-based
learning and compared to the old study-and-spew model, there is much to be
said for it.

There is also much to be said against it, especially where broadly mandated
social programs such as CAPP and family life are concerned. And much is
being said against it, right across Canada, wherever parents and
politicians have banded together to apply the brakes to what they see as
the steady infringement of state-mandated values on parental rights and
beliefs. Nowhere are the brakes squeakier than in Surrey, where a sizable
group of parents and their elected representatives won’t rest until CAPP
is gutted. It’s not educational progress, they argue, but self-serving
political correctness that doesn’t belong in public classrooms.

James Chamberlain has spent the past two years making the
counter-argument–defending his right to use the three innocuous- looking
storybooks to help his students ”identify a variety of models for family
organization.” The core of his argument is constitutional, pitting the
Charter of Rights and Freedoms against the powers of democratically
elected officials to decide what can and can’t be taught at school. No
small classroom scuffle, this. The landmark case will decide whether a
school board has the power to censor teachers and teaching materials, and
for that reason will be closely watched by educators and parents,
politicians and civil rights activists across the country.

The plots of the three books at issue–Asha’s Mums by Rosamund Elwin and
Michele Paulse, One Dad Two Dads Brown Dad Blue Dads by Johnny Valentine
and Belinda’s Bouquet by Leslea Newman–all involve children who live with
same-sex parents. In the first, a little girl named Asha runs into
resistance from her teacher when she brings a field- trip permission note
from home, signed by her two mothers. One Dad Two Dads… is a Seuss-style
exploration of multiculturalism in which a black boy answers a white
girl’s questions about his blue-skinned dads. (”Do they work? Do they
play? Do they cook? Do they cough? If they hug you too hard, does the
colour rub off?”) And Belinda is a child who is labeled fat by an adult
but regains self-esteem thanks to a friend with two moms. Each of the
three books ends with a positive message designed to counter harmful
stereotypes.

The controversy that erupted in 1997 had little if anything to do with the
children in Chamberlain’s Grade 1 class or their parents. Eighteen of the
20 parents who read the books signed a petition in support of the
teacher’s effort to have the school board approve them for classroom use.
They liked Chamberlain, their kids adored him and they agreed with the
message he hoped to communicate through the books–”that love is the glue
that holds families together–not the gender of the parents.”

Surrey trustees could not have agreed less, and when Chamberlain approached
them with his request on April 24, 1997, he was handily voted down. A
teacher’s job is to teach the curriculum, they argued. Identifying
different family models is one thing, but redefining family is not a
prescribed learning outcome, and attempting to do so in a primary
classroom is likely to confuse children and undermine the lessons parents
were teaching around their own kitchen tables–including, around some
tables, that homosexuality is a sin.

By Vancouver standards, Surrey is a strong churchgoing community with
evangelical congregations among the municipality’s fastest growing and
most vocal. They are well represented (overrepresented, say their
opponents) on the school board by a right-wing civic party called the
Surrey Electors Team, whose platform includes a return to the core
curriculum, traditional family values and parental rights–by which they
mean the right of parents to be the primary educators in the development
of attitudes and values of their children. Of the seven trustees on the
board, five belong to this party. Chamberlain didn’t stand a chance.

And so the war began. ”Surrey school board bans three children’s books,”
ran the BCTV news item later that night, showing footage of a shouting
match that had broken out in the school board chamber between opposing
groups of parents. Accusations of censorship and discrimination issued
from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. The provincial New Democrats
cried foul: ”Burning books is not a solution,” Premier Glen Clark told
The Vancouver Sun. Education Minister Paul Ramsey described the board’s
action as ”beyond belief” and issued a thinly veiled threat to fire the
trustees. Chamberlain, backed by the gay-rights group GALE (Gay and
Lesbian Educators of B.C.), rallied support locally and across Canada,
opening a Web site called Bigots Ban Books to document the ensuing battle
and solicit contributions to the Surrey Schools Banned-Book Defence Fund.

In typically broad strokes, the headlines suggest a battle between good
guys and bad: liberals versus rednecks, progressive teachers versus
bigoted censors. In fact, it is not nearly so clearcut. For one thing,
there are more than two sides in this battle. While the activists and
trustees have openly declared their agendas, parents’ and teachers’ groups
have lined up here, there and down the centre. No side can lay clear claim
to strength in numbers, though they’ve tried–commissioning polls whose
methods and results remain questionable. Just how well the trustees
reflect their constituents is also in question voter turnout for the
civic election in 1996 was less than 30 percent. There are parents who
support the books but feel GALE is taking advocacy too far in this case.
There are teachers who back Chamberlain’s professional judgment but
wouldn’t have made the same call in their own classrooms.

Hardest to pin down is the government, a slippery third force in this
battle. The New Democrats launched CAPP three years ago but have clearly
failed to give the program legs. While the premier and education minister
were fast to condemn the trustees’ decision on the three books, they have
offered little explanation for their policy on resource approval, which is
arguably what set Chamberlain up against the trustees in the first place.
Provincial policy requires all classroom resources to be approved either
at the ministry or district level and officials in Victoria are extremely
cautious about what gets the green light. Only three storybooks were (and
still are) on the ministry list for kindergarten and Grade 1 for the
family, life and education part of the personal development program, and
they are innocuous to a fault. The officially approved My Puppy Is Born,
for example, makes Asha’s Mums look like a bodice ripper. My Puppy Is Born
doesn’t shed much light in discussions of family diversity.

Chamberlain describes the ministry’s policy as two parts expediency, one
part education. The politicians know how far they can go on social
reform–and in the past few years the B.C. New Democrats have gone farther
than any other provincial government in granting pension, adoption and
family-support rights to same-sex couples. They also know the limits of
voter support and when it comes to education, they’ve evidently reached
it. ”Schools are a big hot button now,” says Chamberlain, who notes that
Education Minister Ramsey was openly critical of the Surrey school board
before he came close to losing his seat in a recall campaign fueled by
angry right-wing voters. Since then, he’s been mostly silent.

His staff has been, well, cautious. The ministry’s manager of curriculum
standards, David Williams, says the reason this issue is so sensitive is
the risk that a classroom discussion of differences might turn into a
validation of different choices. There is nothing about correctness or
validation of different family models in the kindergarten-to-Grade 1
curriculum, he told me. It’s the same with different races or religions:
”We do not list the particular religions that people should be accepting
of, because as soon as you start listing things, you exclude other
things.”

That’s sheer hypocrisy, charges Chamberlain. ”I’ve got a letter from David
Williams saying the exact opposite–that every model of family must be
validated, and it lists them all and it includes same- sex.” Validation
is a touchstone for the activist teachers and their supporters. ”Kids
from same-sex families have to be totally accepted in our schools,” says
Chamberlain. ”Right now their lives are not reflected in the resources we
use and they’re attacked all the time. They have to be secret to survive
the system, and that’s not fair.”

But the contest between the teachers and the ministry amounted to a mere
skirmish compared to the ensuing hostilities with the Surrey school board.
It unfolded as a holy war, thanks in large part to the rhetoric of Robert
Pickering, then chairman of the school board and a member of the Surrey
Electors Team. In the months preceding the vote on the three books,
Pickering had made clear his antipathy to a B.C. Teachers Federation
proposal to develop an antihomophobia program for the province’s schools.
Describing it as ”a front to recruit children into homosexuality,”
Pickering vowed to ”fight it with all I’ve got… If they make it
mandatory, then it’s war.” The federation was in bed with GALE, in
Pickering’s view, and in early April, on learning that GALE counseling
resources were circulating in district schools, he tabled a resolution
informing all staff that ”resources from gay and lesbian groups such as
GALE or their related resources lists are not approved for use or
redistribution in the Surrey school district.” It passed in a 5-2 vote.

There’s no question the Surrey Electors Team trustees are their own worst
public-relations enemies. Many parents who oppose the use of Asha’s Mums
and the other storybooks are offended by Pickering’s gay-baiting rhetoric
and by his colleagues’ apparent disdain for sex education. In resolution
after resolution, the trustees have chipped away at all the sexual health
programs previously given in the district and still available in most
others. Planned Parenthood is no longer welcome in Surrey classrooms,
public health nurses can’t discuss sexually transmitted diseases and a
plan to install condom machines in school washrooms–though supported by
parental referendum–was overturned.

Chamberlain’s defence forces have been shored up by many parents who have
never set eyes on the three books but who don’t like the direction the
board is going–parents who basically don’t trust their trustees. The
outside affiliations of people such as Pickering and current board
chairwoman Heather Stilwell speak volumes: both Pickering and Stilwell
have been active in Campaign Life Coalition, whose position is that ”to
have become a homosexual is to have acquired a moral disorder” and whose
goals include exclusion of gays in the military and the clergy. Pickering
has been a director of the Citizen’s Research Institute, which has
declared itself against schools teaching that homosexuality is ”normal,
acceptable or must be tolerated.” Stilwell is a founder and former leader
of the provincially registered Christian Heritage Party, which advocates
recriminalizing sexual deviancy and abolishing the Charter of Rights.
While the trustees are gutting sexual health programs, Stilwell has urged
district staff to attend a panel discussion called Facts About
Homosexuality sponsored by Christian organizations that favour
cure-oriented counseling of youth who have been ”recruited into the
homosexual lifestyle.”

Such rhetoric strikes fear in the hearts of many Surrey parents who are
feeling increasingly alienated from their elected officials and are
beginning to wonder about the toll such a war of words might take on their
children and on Surrey’s reputation. ”This is a wonderful multicultural
place that’s why we moved here,” says Diane Willcott, the mother of a
boy who was in Chamberlain’s class at Latimer Road Elementary. ”But we
have very narrow-minded public officials who are only representing a
religious minority. That’s what this is about: keeping religion out of the
schools and keeping special interest groups out. We also have white
supremacists in Surrey–are we going to support their values in our
schools too?”

Last spring, Willcott jumped into the fray with a few like-minded parents,
launching a group called Heterosexuals Exposing Paranoia. Their goal was
to counter what they saw as sexual hysteria being whipped up by the
trustees. ”What do they mean, homosexual lifestyle? Same-sex families
have the same kind of lives that we have,” she says. ”They get up every
morning, they feed their kids, they drive them to the hockey rink.”

The battle moved to the B.C. Supreme Court early in the summer of 1997,
with five petitioners issuing a joint challenge to the school board on
their book resolution as well as the GALE decision. The five were: James
Chamberlain Diane Willcott Murray Warren, a gay teacher in the Coquitlam
school district and an active member of GALE Rosamund Elwin, coauthor of
Asha’s Mums and Blain Cook, a Surrey student who has experienced
harassment in his high school. They were supported by the national
organization EGALE (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere) and by the
B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which acted as collection agency for the
defence fund. Sixty affidavits were entered as evidence by the
petitioners, including harsh criticism of the book ban from renowned
developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan of Harvard University.

The petitioners retained Victoria lawyer Joseph Arvay, who is well known
for another anticensorship case–the long-running battle between
Vancouver’s Little Sister’s Bookstore and Canada Customs over the seizure
of books at the U.S. border. Both resolutions, argued Arvay, represented
clear violations of the constitutional rights of minority families in
Surrey. In saying no to all GALE resources, the board robbed gay teachers
and students, and children who live in same-sex families, of their rights
to equality and to freedom of expression. In saying no to the three books,
he said, the board ”has rendered the gay and lesbian people in the
district invisible.”

The resolutions are also in violation of our freedom of religion, said
Arvay, and that includes freedom from religion. Almost everyone who
opposes homosexuality does so on religious grounds, he argued, and
religion has no place in a public school. While a school board must strive
to represent its constituency, it cannot do so in violation of the
constitution or the Human Rights Code. Parents who believe homosexuality
is evil ”are entitled to hold those beliefs and even attempt to inculcate
them in their children,” Arvay said. ”However, they have no right to
impose them on the other people in the Surrey school district.”

It was a sweeping argument and the petitioners hoped Justice Mary Saunders
would accept it, signaling to school boards across the country that it
would never again be legitimate to ban books simply because they portray
homosexuality in a positive light. This would not mean all books with gay
themes or characters must be approved for school use, Arvay said. Some
would not be age-appropriate, ”but the central point of this case is that
books cannot be held to be age-inappropriate simply because they deal with
homosexuality.”

The school board also came up with 60 affidavits to defend its position,
many from educational experts who questioned the value of the books
precisely because of their age-appropriateness. Fred Renihan,
superintendent of schools for the district, believes it’s all about age.
There is a crucial difference between discussing same-sex families in
Grade 10 (at which time the subject is clearly prescribed by the ministry
as part of CAPP) and teaching it in kindergarten to Grade 1. At the
primary level, he told the court, such lessons carry the potential to
disrupt a healthy partnership between schools and parents.

Validation of individual belief systems cuts both ways–which is, in
effect, what many parents wrote in support of the board’s position. Those
who see the books as a tool to fight discrimination do not have a monopoly
on this particular moral touchstone. Children who have been taught that
families properly spring from married mothers and fathers also deserve to
be validated by teachers, say these parents, not all of whom are
religious. Those who are religious tend to take the stronger stand–that
children must not be challenged in their belief that homosexuality is a
sin. Nor should they be given the idea their parents are bigots.

Mary Polak leans back in her board-room chair in the Surrey school district
office and takes a deep breath. The legal arguments are over, the waiting
period begun. Despite her ready smile, the 30-year-old trustee and member
of the Surrey Electors Team is looking just a little worn out. Brian
Bastien, associate superintendent for the district, is also at the table.
He too looks tired and somewhat annoyed. They are describing their defence
against the petitioners’ harsh accusations, insisting they have been
misrepresented, misunderstood. They are not bigots and nothing has been
banned, they tell me. The first resolution was not to exclude resources
from GALE, says Polak, but to inform district staff that these resources
have not yet been approved by the district’s fledgling CAPP advisory
committee (a group of mostly parents and teachers responsible for
approving sensitive resources). The second resolution was a response to
pressure from members of GALE and the Surrey Teachers Association who were
anxious to have the books approved and didn’t care to wait for the CAPP
committee to get rolling. Though she maintains the board was within its
rights to approve or disapprove of the resources under the B.C. School
Act, Polak now admits this may have been a political mistake. By yielding
to the pressure, they walked into a trap.

Polak suggests it was strategic for the teachers to push the Surrey board
for approvals they knew they would not get, thus laying the foundation for
the court challenge they really wanted–one that would obscure the
relevant classroom issues under the rhetoric of book bans and censorship.
If the trustees are guilty of rhetoric, so are the activists, she insists,
and they’re loading their cannons in this case not only to force the
ministry’s hand but to turn heads nationwide. They targeted Surrey because
it is the second-largest school district in the province, next to
Vancouver, and with its fast rate of growth will likely be the largest
within a few years. ”Obviously it wouldn’t carry as much weight if they
approved [the books] in Spuzzum,” says Polak.

Politics is overshadowing common sense, says Bastien. He knows of no
district in the province that has approved these resources for classroom
use, the ministry has not approved them, yet Surrey has been tarred and
feathered for not approving them. Accusations of bigotry and cries of
censorship only distract from the real issue, he says, which is age.
”You’ve got a 5-year-old who can’t even tie up his shoes,” says Bastien.
”And now are you going to tell him about the correctness and only the
correctness as perceived by one [person]? Or are you going to get into two
views?”

Like most districts in B.C. and across the rest of Canada, Surrey has
antiharassment policies to protect the rights and physical safety of all
students and staff. ”We want to deal with behaviour, whether it’s
bullying, whether it’s racial, whether it’s sexual orientation,” Bastien
says. ”All of those things, we’re together on. But when you start to tell
people how they should believe, that becomes a contentious issue that is
best resolved by the elected officials.”

Elected officials across Canada have struggled with the same contentious
issue, but there is no such thing as a solution to satisfy all sides. In
Calgary, the public school board came under fire from a parental-rights
group for an anti-harassment plan that included supportive in-school
counseling for gay students. The group, believing homosexuality should not
be supported as a healthy lifestyle at school or anywhere else, won
concessions in the plan, allowing parents to exempt their children.
Similarly, in Toronto, gay-rights advocates have made slow progress at
best. Though trustees are proud of their Challenging Homophobia program at
the Toronto Board of Education, which includes workshops offered to
students from Grade 4 up, activists have not made inroads on provincial
curriculum.

Diane Willcott and her fellow Supreme Court petitioners believe a large
part of the solution lies in breaking the Surrey Electors Team monopoly on
the Surrey school board. As a member of the district’s parent advisory
council, Willcott has observed the trustees in action over the past few
years and accuses them of poisoning the atmosphere with their
fundamentalist politics. Banning resources designed to help students
Willcott describes as ”the most vulnerable in the system” is the last
straw, she says. It’s sexual hysteria disguised as family values, and it’s
way out of control.

It remains unclear whether this conflict will ever be solved at the ballot
box or in a courtroom. What is clear is how much damage has already been
done. ”I’m going to be much more nervous about what I’m doing in the
classroom than I ever was before,” Vicky Bradbury told me a few weeks
before the start of the fall term at the Surrey high school where she
teaches. For the past two years, the CAPP teacher was seconded by the
ministry to coordinate implementation of the Career and Personal Planning
programs for the region, which makes her an expert on CAPP and an advocate
of its power to support learning. But given what has transpired in the
past two years, she is no longer sure she can teach it. With zealous
trustees, nervous administrators and suspicious parents looking over their
shoulders, her colleagues are ”living in fear” of teaching CAPP in
Surrey.

”They’ve had to submit every guest speaker for approval, every community
resource. Many of them are afraid to teach any unapproved resource–all
you need is to hear one parent complain about something and your life is
in misery,” says Bradbury. ”Back in the old days, which wasn’t so long
ago,” she says, speaking of the time before Asha’s Mums triggered a holy
war, ”you could just use whatever you wanted.”

It may be too late to go back and that may not be such a good idea. The
good old days never really were. Life has always been as complex, as
challenging and as dangerous for children as it is today–if in different
ways. The Three Rs have never been enough to send students on their way
through life. Values, for better or worse, have always been part of what’s
passed along in the classroom. And there never was a time of sacred trust
between teachers and parents. It was more like benign neglect and remains
so for many of today’s busy parents who are content knowing their children
will be blessed with some good teachers, cursed with some bad ones, and
with any luck will emerge at least a bit smarter in the end.

The truth is that in the old days, people like James Chamberlain were
likely to be hailed as model teachers. Hardworking, idealistic and
creative, they proved themselves to be worthy of the trust they earned
from their students and the respect they received from those few parents
who were paying attention.

Trust is the big casualty in this battle. Though Chamberlain has earned it
at his school, he struggles to understand why things have become so
polarized. He insists the problem lies far away from his classroom, where
the compact between teacher and student is alive and well. He is a
professional, after all. He is governed by the B.C. Teachers Federation
code of ethics and never has broken the rules and never would, he tells
me. ”You can’t use your classroom for ideological advantage. You can’t
indoctrinate. If I were to talk about families, and only talked about
same-sex families, then yes, I am using the classroom for the wrong
purpose and I can be disciplined. My job is to talk about all kinds of
families, irrespective of whether some families in the community are
uncomfortable with some models.”

If it’s the irrespective that is causing all the grief, Chamberlain is
prepared to live with that. There are many lessons that need to be taught
in schools today, he says, to help children puzzle their way through life.
The ministry agrees with him there and has developed the CAPP program for
this very purpose. Unfortunately, they haven’t attached the book list that
would support such an ambitious program and are powerless to influence
districts that seem intent on removing all such supports. In those
troubled districts, teachers have no alternative but to improvise–at
their own risk.

Bookless, Chamberlain improvises at the blackboard. He teaches 5- and
6-year-olds about the folly of sexual stereotypes, for instance, by
drawing a Venn diagram on the board: in this circle we’ll list all the
”things men do” and in that circle are all the ”things women do” and
here is where the two circles overlap–and guess what? By the end of
Chamberlain’s lesson almost everything is listed in the overlapping zone.

”My responsibility as a classroom teacher is to make the world a better
place,” he tells me. To do so, he will continue to look for those
priceless teachable moments and seize them–with or without Asha’s help.
And this is the final irony of the ideological war: no one can stop James
Chamberlain from discussing same-sex families in his classroom. They can
only stop him from reading about them, which would help but is not
absolutely essential to his lesson plan.

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